Is it Time for the U.S. to Engage with the Taliban?


By James Durso

Afghanistan’s Taliban recently proposed it take a role in aid distribution via the creation of a joint mechanism with international aid organizations to coordinate the distribution of food aid to the country. According to the Taliban, “The goal of this committee is coordination on a higher level for facilitating humanitarian aid of the international community and to distribute aid for needy people.”

Taliban representatives recently met with Western government officials and Afghan women’s rights and human rights activists in Norway. The U.S. delegation addressed “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women.”

Afghanistan’s neighbors Central Asia and India aren’t dallying. They recently met and agreed to create working groups to address Afghanistan’s food emergency, recognition of the Taliban, and the development of the Iranian port of Chabahar. The U.S. and Europe can help by holding their fire as the neighbors of heavily-sanctioned Iran and Afghanistan attempt to stabilize the region and create economic opportunity that will allow them to distance themselves from China’s thrust into the region.

The West needs to get a move on as the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  have declared that 19 million people in Afghanistan are experiencing “high levels of acute food insecurity” and that that number will climb to 22.8 million this winter unless action is taken.

Washington’s priorities of a satisfactory (to the U.S.)  representative government, and its desires for Afghan women girls should take a back seat to averting a humanitarian catastrophe this winter. Afghans are being forced to sell their children for food, so more public engagement along will U.S. food aid will rebound to Washington’s benefit.

U.S. policymakers no doubt feel anger and humiliation at the public failure of their two-decade project to reform Pashtun culture.

But refusing practical steps to engage now with the new government in Kabul as disaster looms will show the U.S. and its confederates to be both incompetent and spiteful, a massive in-kind donation to the Taliban’s PR campaign internally and aimed at the wider Muslim world.

Recent visitors to Kabul report the Taliban want Americans to return to the country (“Even Erik Prince can come here!”), one reason being to counter Chinese expansion in the region.

A good start would be visits by U.S. officials to Kabul, as limiting their contacts to the Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar may also be interpreted as a lack of physical courage, which won’t inspire confidence in Kabul’s new chiefs. It will also give U.S. officials an opportunity to meet the Taliban out of earshot of Qatari officials who, while they have been helpful to the U.S., have their own agenda.

According to the visitors, the roads are open, free of roadblocks, and repair crews are at work. As the country was historically a trading crossroads, now is the time to again make it the connector between Central and South Asia, and a trade partner with Iran’s 80 million people.

Fortunately, leaders from Central Asia and South Asia — Uzbekistan and Pakistan — previously acted to connect the regions to increase trade and opportunity. In July, Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan met in Tashkent where they signed agreements to upgrade their countries’ economic relations. The leaders may have been racing the clock, but their project requires an Afghan crossroads where their businesses can trade with without fear of the U.S.

The U.S. attempt to export identity politics to Afghanistan (via demands for a “representative government”) may be obliged by the Taliban if they introduce the world to the Afghan Margot Honecker, which will cause wails of “We didn’t mean a woman like that!” The Taliban aren’t neglecting girls’ education as private schools – for boys and girls – are open, and the government  promised public schools will all be open after the Afghan New Year in late March.

After the Taliban’s August victory, there were few revenge killings and no one has been sent to a reeducation camp. If the Taliban deliver on their promise to open girls’ schools in March, the way should be open to consider releasing some Afghan funds seized by the U.S. or waiving sanctions against Taliban leaders so foreign businessmen can start to explore just how ready the Taliban are to engage with them and meet their demands for security and transparency.

The U.S. will have concerns about what the Taliban is doing to repress the Pakistan Taliban (the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)), Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). If the Taliban follow through on the girls’ schools, the U.S. should grant concessions that will facilitate regional trade, then ask Kabul to take action against the three extremist groups. The Taliban may then be likely to move against Al-Qaeda and IS-K, but not against the TTP, and the U.S. will know this if it is clear-eyed, though it should call for action against the TTP, at least to keep Pakistan on-side when Islamabad goes into a funk over the latest American “abandonment.”.

Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, described the Afghan Taliban and the TTP as “two sides of the same coin.” The Afghan Taliban see the TTP as their Pashtun allies in a conflict with Pakistan over the nominal border, the contested Durand Line. It is a scrap the U.S. will be wise to otherwise avoid, and instead focus on strengthening local economies as a counter to Beijing’s designs for Central and South Asia.

The Taliban aren’t the baddest actors America ever dealt with.

After World War II, the U.S. quickly hired German scientists and former Nazi officials. The U.S. also gave a pass to leaders of Unit 731, Japan’s germ warfare unit that experimented on Allied POWs.

The difference between then and now is that then the U.S. was the victor, so it was easy to be generous, especially as the West was rapidly retooling to confront Communism.

The question for America now is, as it faces a Communist regime in Beijing instead of Moscow, can it be magnanimous in defeat?

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Flag of Taliban is highlighted in the featured graphic. Credit: Bigstock.

We have just published a collection of the essays which Durso has provided over the last couple of years, which provides his unique perspective on Washington and the world:

See also the following:

The Afghan Winter 2022 and Afghan Sanctions

Norway, the Taliban, and the Afghan Situation